The Future of Movable Type

With Movable Type 4.0 looming on the horizon and several CMS platform challengers stealing the limelight, this is a crucial time for Six Apart. The way forward transcends fanboy squabbles and focuses squarely on what the application can and should do.

Last year, there was a considerable disconnect between the company itself and community leaders. With the launch of Vox and other Six Apart ventures, some were afraid that Movable Type had become the red-headed stepchild of Ben and Mena. The communication has since improved, with regular ProNet conference calls and more internal transparency; but if Six Apart genuinely wants Movable Type to be the one-stop solution for personal and enterprise blogs, there are some important things they need to do. (The most recent ProNet podcast is a good sign of things to come and addresses much of what I’ve written here.)

Becoming Pioneers Again

First, Six Apart needs to think long term about the future of blogging. They aren’t stupid. Vox was proof positive that Six Apart understands a great deal about today’s blogs: media-rich content, beautiful user interface, simple site organization. Yet Vox’s philosophy hasn’t fully worked its way down the food chain to Six Apart’s publishing platform. Instead, we have Movable Type, a status quo business blogging tool that does some things very well and does some other things very poorly. Ultimately, Movable Type has left the door open for failure, and others who do the job better have already started slipping through. If Six Apart wants to remain relevant in the publishing platform arena, they’ll have to more than just keep up with other platforms; they’ll have to think ahead. Most of our ProNet discussions center around making Movable Type work the way it should already be working; that is certainly important, but that’s not noteworthy, that’s beta testing. We need to be pioneering.

Outlining Clear Goals

Second, Six Apart needs to set a roadmap for progress. Apple can get away with surprising us, but only because they have intense buzz-marketing and huge product launches. Six Apart doesn’t have that luxury. Six Apart’s greatest asset is a dedicated community of Movable Type users; so the best use of that commodity is grassroots excitement. Plugin developers shouldn’t be hesitant to write code because they’re unsure of where the product is going and if their code will work with it. Website designers shouldn’t be hesitant to suggest Movable Type because they’re not sure if it has Six Apart’s full support. Personal users shouldn’t be disregarded for enterprise users. Let’s not forget that personal users who like Movable Type often result in enterprise users.

And this is directly related to the first point: outline clear product goals to ProNet, reward active members, get the people who ultimately sell your product excited about working with you, and then put this formula altogether in a clear, easy-to-figure-out package so that others are knocking down the door to join. Six Apart began with a strong conviction that was shared by many and in turn flourished into a blogging revolution; there is still a remnant of followers, but the conviction isn’t as evident as it once was.

I just spoke with a developer today who wanted to know why I use Movable Type instead of WordPress. My answer had alot to do with the community; but while the community does a great deal of selling the product, at the end of the day the product has to work, and it has to work well.

Reinventing The Platform

My final point is this: if Six Apart is going to reclaim prominence in the publishing platform arena, then it needs to reinvent it’s flagship product In other words, Movable Type 4.0 needs to knock it out of the park.

Six Apart needs to first solve the static page dilemma; there have been countless articles written on the topic, but they’re almost all painful workarounds. MT4.0 should add “Pages” to the main menu and have a “Default Page” template. Then new “Pages” can be added without cluttering up the Entry and Template lists. Nearly all blogs have at least a few static pages: a contact page, an about page, etc. Why should these pages clutter up the Template list when they aren’t really templates?

And why should a change that needs to be made to an element that appears on every page have to be changed in so many different places? A site’s header, footer and sidebar are almost always the same on all pages; variations on individual pages should be the exception, not the rule. A user should be able to make a change to the header and have it implemented across the site; I know how to set this functionality up for clients, but it ought to come standard in MT.

Next, Six Apart needs to either dump Movable Type’s vestigial features or do them right. I’m talking about things like file uploading, image integration and mail notification. Some of MT’s features are like faux buttons on cheap cars; they’re just there to make it look expensive. But if you’re going to show off a feature, then it needs to work, and work well.

One of the biggest complaints I receive from clients is how poorly MT’s notification system works; managing blog subscriptions shouldn’t have to be relegated to an outside service like FeedBurner or FeedBlitz (especially since that isn’t always an option).

Another weakness is image integration; images have become an absolutely essential part of blogging, but MT turns it into a process of cut and paste. Image uploading is handled beautifully in WordPress; upload to a gallery where you can then choose from thumbnails and the application itself inserts the necessary code.

These are all classic examples of functionality, not intuition. A good tool should get out of the users way and make the creative process easy. When a user spends more time trying to get the tool working the way it should than actually using it, it’s time for reinvention. (I’m aware that Wheeljack has addressed some of these issues.)

And finally, is Movable Type a true CMS or is it merely a blog publishing platform? The question needs to be settled once and for all by Six Apart. Maybe they could learn a lesson from a tissue: When the the Kimberly-Clark Corporation first released the Kleenex in 1924, they advertised it a cleaning tissue for cold cream; by the 30’s, it became obvious that most people were using it to blow their nose. And that’s how it’s primarily advertised today. So how is Movable Type being used today?

The results of the plugin survey that Byrne conducted were revealing: if you could only have one plugin on your MT install, which would it be? RightFields took first place. If you combine votes for RightFields and CustomFields, custom entry fields took first place for most requested functionality to be built into MT’s core. The people have spoken and it seems as though they want a more flexible MT.

Getting Better vs. Getting By

Again, these are all things that we’ve been able to work around. We’ve created plugins to deal with painful image uploads. We’ve developed hacks to handle static pages. We’ve conditioned our clients into thinking that difficult is normal. But settling for status quo doesn’t cut it out here on the ‘net, especially if the goal is “Best Publishing Platform, Period”. Movable Type has revolutionized blogging, but that was yesterday. What happens when another product shows up on the scene and handles all of this without the hassle? What would keep you using Movable Type? What would make you switch? These are questions Six Apart needs to consider and address if it wants to remain a major player as a publishing platform.